By Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan
Source: Nightjet, https://www.nightjet.com/#/home
Air New Zealand has a problem. The national airline needs to be profitable and, traditionally, this has involved increasing passenger numbers. In the past, this growth has been one of the many factors leading to the demise of passenger rail in Aotearoa New Zealand. But, like the whole global aviation industry, the airline is now under increasing pressure to reduce emissions. Guided by the Science Based Targets initiative, Air New Zealand has a stated goal to reduce carbon intensity by 2030 by 28.9%, from a 2019 baseline.
Credit: Air New Zealand
Air New Zealand’s biggest challenge is to reduce emissions from its international network. This will not be easy. There are likely to be small ongoing efficiency gains. But large reductions rely on the hope that so called Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) will be produced in sufficient quantities to allow the significant replacement of fossil fuels. Further in the future, hydrogen may also play a role.
But the airline also needs to reduce emissions from its domestic flying. Again, SAFs are seen as part of the solution. But, here, there is hope that electric planes will eventually replace many regional flights. Worldwide, there are currently a plethora of projects endeavouring to produce electric planes that could replace the current regional fleet of ATRs and the smaller de Havilland Q300. But there are significant challenges to overcome, including battery density and safety certification. So it is highly unlikely that we will see significant numbers of people using electric planes by 2030.
By contrast, regional and long-distance electric passenger trains have long been operating safely throughout the world, primarily through the use of overhead wires. Some passenger networks are fully electrified, for example in Switzerland. Now, overseas, battery-operated trains are beginning to fill the gaps in electrified networks. New Zealand is ordering 18 of tri-mode trains that can use both existing overhead lines and batteries. These will run in the lower North Island. But the order could now be expanded so further services could be started in other parts of the country.
Not only do electric trains create very low levels of emissions, but they are also extremely energy efficient as they require only a fraction of the renewable electricity needed to power an electric or hydrogen plane. Their added advantage is their ability to link isolated communities that are located next to railway tracks but are far from airports . Currently, with no trains, and a poor inter-city bus network, people who are young, old or disabled face major transport challenges. As our population ages, this older group that is unable, or unwilling, to drive will expand.
Rather than competing with trains, could Air New Zealand achieve some of its required emission reductions, while also gaining new customers, by working with rail operators? Could Air New Zealand even become a rail operator itself? Its mission statement specifies that its concern lies with people, not specifically with planes:
“Our driving purpose is all about people. We're here to 'Enrich our country by connecting New Zealanders to each other and New Zealand to the world'.”
Air New Zealand’s Mission Statement goes on to say:
“Our aircraft's tails all proudly bear the Māori symbol of the Mangōpare, or hammerhead shark. The Mangōpare represents strength, tenacity, and resilience. The symbol is also known as the koru, the sign of new life, renewal, and hope for the future.”
If Air New Zealand really cares about the planet and the future of the people who live on it, it could provide hope to future generations by showing innovative thinking through teaming up with rail in order to bring down transport emissions.
Such partnerships overseas are starting to become more common, especially in Europe. In North America, examples can be found where routes use a mix of planes and buses.
A number of possible arrangements come to mind. One is code sharing. But could Air New Zealand actually run a train, perhaps in partnership with KiwiRail or potentially a private operator such as Transdev? Transdev, which runs the Wellington Metro network, also operates night trains in Europe. Auckland to Wellington is a perfect distance to run a night train. Then, emission conscious travellers could choose to use the night train for both legs of the trip between Wellington and Auckland or perhaps for only one leg.
Credit: Richard Young, Future is Rail Conference 2023
Increasingly, companies and other organisations, such as universities, are under pressure to reduce emissions. A night train would offer their staff a low emission travel option on the busy Auckland-Wellington route. Other routes could also be considered, such as Auckland to Tauranga, and, especially for tourists, Auckland to Rotorua. Unlike the magical solutions proposed, trains could be delivered and be operating well before 2030.
Currently, the government fully owns KiwiRail and has a majority shareholding in Air New Zealand, potentially facilitating the development of a partnership. Partnerships are not without precedent. In 2012, under the Key led National government, Air NZ established a partnership with the Department of Conservation.
If there was code sharing, and one leg was an international flight, this would raise an interesting question. Currently, if someone uses a domestic flight to join up to an international one both are exempt from paying GST. But even without direct code sharing, why if someone uses the train instead, or perhaps a bus, should this not also be exempt? Or better still, in order not to provide unnecessary incentives for flying, both forms of travel should be treated equally and this tax loophole could be closed. The additional revenue raised could help support the revival of rail.
With the level of transformation to low emission travel needed, we can no longer treat transport modes in isolation. We need to use all the tools within the avoid-improve-shift framework and Air New Zealand should demonstrate corporate leadership and responsibility by teaming up with rail.
Credit: Anthony Cross
By Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan
Each day we read news about the increasing local and global effects of human induced climate change. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we know travel by cars and planes is an important source of emissions. We have adopted a ‘shift, avoid and improve’ framework to analyse pathways for reducing overall transport emissions. So how do we apply this when thinking about trains versus planes?
Three other issues are relevant in any debates about trains versus planes.
One is how we power transport. Electrification of domestic travel is critical. There is a steady stream of reports being published on how best to provide the scarce and valuable renewable electricity to underpin the transport transition.
A second issue is resource use. This affects both the provision of renewable electricity and transport choices. For example, there are debates about the availability of key minerals such as copper and lithium.
A third is the carbon needed in investing in either train or aviation infrastructure. Expanding and building new airports requires major civil engineering works as does upgrading rail infrastructure.
There are many important, and far reaching, discussions taking place this year. For some, public input is being sought. For example, in April this year, the Climate Change Commission released its draft advice to inform the strategic direction of the Government’s second emissions reduction plan, covering Aotearoa New Zealand’s 2026–2030 emissions budget. The Tourism Environment Leadership Group, supported by MBIE, are currently seeking feedback on a draft Tourism Environment Action Plan. One goal in the draft is to ‘leverage tourism to advocate for rapidly decarbonising domestic transport used by visitors.’
At a regional level, Queenstown airport is seeking public feedback on its plans to increase passenger numbers by one third in the next decade.
In Auckland, there has been debate about council ownership of airport shares. But in an increasingly tangled and often contradictory world of growth aspirations versus much needed emission reductions, the airport is embarking on major expansion plans while Auckland council’s own emission reduction plan calls for a 50% reduction in domestic aviation emissions by 2030.
Adding to the discussion, at the end of June is the passenger rail conference being held in Wellington, with the theme “The Future is Rail”.
The decline of inter-regional passenger rail in Aotearoa New Zealand is well documented. In fact, many delegates to the rail conference cannot conveniently get to the conference venue and back home by train. Once, it would have been possible to arrive on the morning of the conference by train from Auckland or Hamilton and leave that evening again by overnight train. Or arrive from Whanganui, New Plymouth or Napier. Now people have to drive, bus or fly.
It is therefore no surprise that we rank 4th in the world for per-capita domestic aviation emissions. On a per capita domestic basis, New Zealanders emit 7 times more aviation emissions than people living in the UK and 9 times that of Germany.
Trains are at the heart of a goal to ‘shift’ domestic inter-regional travel
The global data show clearly the energy and emission benefits of train travel.
But these gains will be only achieved if there are trains available and people use them. Who might we attract onto trains?
There will be a group of people who are currently unable to drive or fly who will have their travel options opened up by the provision of trains. Increasingly, this includes people who wish to reduce their carbon footprints. There are young people without cars, not old enough to drive or perhaps without driver licences. Previous blogs have outlined a range of potential passengers, including those who can use the train as their office or who wish to enjoy some of New Zealand’s cycleways.
But it also includes many people who could be classified as transport disadvantaged due to poverty, where they live, or perhaps physical disabilities.
If we are to reduce emissions, we have to get a significant number of people to shift out of cars and planes. And to do that we need a policy environment that fully supports the shift to trains, including the large investment needed to upgrade the rail network. We do not have this in Aotearoa New Zealand. Instead, the playing field, through subsidies and a raft of other policies, supports the building of roads and the aviation industry.
Such change will not come quickly. While low emission trains are now available on the world market, getting an extensive frequent network up and running in Aotearoa New Zealand will take many decades. But some changes could come quickly, such as the reinstatement of a night train between Auckland and Wellington. Or adding an affordable backpackers carriage on the Northern Explorer. It would have been so much easier if we had started this revival two decades ago. This map shows a scenario of rail services we would now be operating in Aotearoa New Zealand if we had invested in the same way as Victoria.
In our series of train blogs, various rail experts and public transport enthusiasts have set out their visions for reviving passenger rail.
But will the promise of ‘zero emission’ flights derail a shift to trains?
Aviation relies on a goal to ‘improve’
In order to decarbonise, the aviation industry relies almost entirely on promises of future technological breakthroughs. These promises are announced almost weekly.
There are three key promises.
Source: Queenstown airport masterplan
Recently we have had two journal articles published considering the future of aviation. These are:
Callister, P. and McLachlan, R. (2023) Decarbonising Aotearoa New Zealand’s aviation sector: Hard to abate, but even harder to govern. Policy Quarterly, 19(2): 9-18. (online)
Callister, P. and McLachlan, R (2023) Managing Aotearoa New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2023.2212174 (open access)
Our conclusions are:
We very much favour on-going research into low emission aviation. But to be sure to reduce emissions we need to now invest in the technologies that will give us certain, long-term reductions in both energy use and emissions. Rail is one.
We cannot rely on the aviation industry on its own to develop the pathway to decarbonise the sector. We need an overall plan. This needs to be led by government and needs to involve all the levers of ‘shift, avoid and improve’.
By Ross Clark
A big part of how we grow the rail industry is in seeing passengers shift from flying to using the train. But to understand how to do that we first need to understand where the domestic aviation industry has got to over the years, and why. My working paper deals with three issues in that respect:
The analysis of the current situation included what the busy routes are, and where there is scope there is to easily shift traffic onto more sustainable modes.
There are also passing comments on the resulting policy issues.
Credit: ZK-BXG in National Airways Corporation/Air New Zealand Hybrid Livery. (Peter Lewis Photo)